Happy Halloween!

Winky Wesson likes to flirt.

You’ll be happy to know that my husband managed to keep that giant bag of Hershey mini-bars intact.  I still don’t know where he hid them,* but he’s been appointed Official Guardian of the kids’ Christmas presents.

At this posting, I should be driving slowly home in the hopes that he’ll beat me home and win neighborhood escort duty for two costumed kids who’re already well sugar-rushed from their school parties.

This year, Janie is a dark-haired Gothic Queen,** with a black and red velvet scarf—chopped off from the bottom of her dress, which was a foot too long— thrown around her neck.  and Sunny is a Batgirl with curly blond hair, a mask she’d wear to bed if we let her, and bright, bat-signal-yellow tights.***

I actually did dress up this year, adding a pair of red plastic devil horns to my usual toner-colored ensemble,^  which prompted this conversation at work:

“Hey, Sarah, you glue those things on?”

“Nah, I thought I’d grow ‘em out for the holidays.”

“Ha ha ha! Um. . . Really?”

Maaaaaaybe.

Have a thrilling Halloween!^^

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* Not that I was looking, you understand . . .

** Because she hates the Batwing collar and plastic dentures parts of her Vampire Queen costume.  If she’d waited for me to take her to the cheaper Halloween store, she could have gone as the Spider Empress, with rings and webby faux earrings and a silver spider yo-yo. . . but no.  I do have to admit that she looks disturbingly good in blood red.

***We Love Colors is an amazing source for tights in tough-to-find colors in just about every size—no joke. They’re pricey, but even my kids outgrow the lycra ones before they wear ‘em out. I’ve been known to wear a pair, and tights and I have had a non-aggression pact since the mid-eighties.

^ That’s as good as it gets, folks— no one’s paying me in free candy.

^^No, this isn’t our house.  We like our neighbors.

Book Review: The Ionia Sanction

My freshman college roommate—an overachiever who double-majored in business and something else traditionally lucrative that I can’t remember—was required to take a year-long course called “Western Civ.”  I wasn’t, and after just one semester of watching her try to stay awake while jamming ancient and venerable dates and names and events of the who-on-earth-cares-they’re-all-dead-now variety into her overtaxed brain, I was more than grateful to be a music major.

But if Gary Corby had been teaching that class?  I would have taken it voluntarily and recommended it to all my friends.

Yep. That would be foreshadowing.

The man has never met a boring historical fact—or if he has, he seems completely incapable of passing it along in that state.  His interest and enthusiasm are absolutely infectious and the way he connects cause and effect is the mark of a great teacher—or a great mystery author.

I thoroughly enjoyed Gary Corby’s debut, The Pericles Commission, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for more than a year to read more of Nicolaus, ancient Athen’s first private detective, and his ladylove, the brilliant priestess Diotima. Visiting  his blog helped, for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph, but it wasn’t the same.

So when I was offered the opportunity to get my hands on an advance copy of The Ionia Sanction, you better believe I went for it.*

One would think that solving the murder of the inventor of democracy would earn Nico respect and some kudos for a job eventually well done.  But he’s starting a hard-boiled tradition here, so what he gets instead is murder, woman trouble, and advanced courses in ethics and treason.

An Athenian agent who facilitates Ephesian business interests has been murdered, leaving behind a note that says he betrayed his office and city—and that Athens is in danger.  Pericles hires Nico to hunt down the killer and the victim’s son asks him to clear his father of treason.  But after a valiant, catastrophic attempt to catch the murderer and retrieve the victim’s stolen mail seriously ticks off his boss, Nico decides he’d be better off looking for answers in Ephesus.

On his way, he acquires Asia, a headstrong slave girl who insists she’s the daughter of the infamous Athenian traitor Themistocles, and reunites with a somewhat frosty Diotima, whom he hasn’t seen since his father refused to allow them to marry.

Together, they head for the Persian province of Magnesia.  There, they encounter treasure, treachery, and Themistocles, who takes a personal, and not entirely altruistic, interest in Nico’s future. A future that is looking brighter and brighter through Persian-colored glasses.

As the trail leads Nico farther from his home into unknown territory, he must determine where his loyalties truly lie and whether he can walk a fine enough ethical line to save his home, his love, and himself.

Holy cow, but this is a good book.

There’s snappy dialogue, multi-layered characters—I found Barzanes, an investigator of the Persian King, to be particularly intriguing**—emotional turmoil, a plethora of unobtrusive historical details about two disparate cultures,  and two, or three, plots braided together to make one heck of a mystery.

If The Pericles Commission is all about politics and power, Ionia Sanction is all about philosophies, loyalties, and ethics.  The mystery isn’t just about solving the initial murder—it’s about the motivations and personal beliefs of each character and how far they will go to defend or deny them.

This may seem obvious, but the ancient world was a vastly different place—it wasn’t simply ours minus technology.  There were different laws, different etiquettes, different attitudes, hygiene, methods, mindsets, social conventions, and values.  And Gary Corby’s characters, for the most part, keep to the customs and rules they know and don’t think of challenging them. Even the ones that, from our point of view, are a bit silly or unfair, or those that could hamper or harm them.***

Of course, these characters do rationalize, spin, and bend the letter of the law just this side of the breaking point—they aren’t  completely different from us—and the technicalities and loopholes they come up with are fascinating to behold. But when one of them actually breaks with an accepted custom or social convention, however small, it has real impact to the character and the story.

I can’t tell you my favorites of these without ruining the  novel, so I’ll share a  detail that grabbed me (skip the next two paragraphs if you want to avoid a tiny spoiler):

At one point, Nico is invited to put on a pair of trousers so he can learn to ride a horse without sustaining considerable damage to one of his favorite sensitive areas.  He’s appalled and disgusted— trousers are a Persian thing and a challenge to masculinity and no self-respecting Hellene man would wear them. Ever.  Period.  So it’s an incredibly big deal when he finally agrees to try them, for practical purposes . . . and even bigger deal later when he automatically dons a pair and feels only a twinge of unease that he doesn’t feel more.

There’s a subtle sense of corruption here, one slippery centimeter down that metaphorical slope, and it’s very effective.  To us, it’s protective clothing.  For Nico, it’s a sign that his core values, his sense of self, might be changing.

This is good stuff, and it’s only possible because the author understands his setting and his characters so well and has skillfully passed that understanding to his readers.^    We end up judging the character’s actions and beliefs by their lights, not ours—and that makes all the difference.

So does a  generous dash of humor—Nico alone has his share of foot-in-mouth episodes, bumbles, and pratfalls, including a beautiful moment (and I’m sorry for the spoiler, but I can’t help this one) when he states that of course he can ride a horse, because he’s a man . . . and you can actually hear the Fates pulling  his life-thread back like anachronistic elastic on the pair of  pants he will no doubt soon wish—despite custom—he had been wearing.

In short, Gary Corby has done it again.

So if you’re looking for me, check his blog—I’ll be there, waiting for the next one!

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The Ionia Sanction will be released on November 8, which gives you plenty of time to pre-order—and read or re-read  The Pericles Commission, too!

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*I did not giggle manically . . . but in the spirit of full disclosure I’ll admit to doing a few steps of the free book dance.

**He almost makes up for the absence of Euterpe and Pythas, my two favorite secondary characters from Pericles.  I’m interested in knowing what they thought of Diotima being rejected as a suitable bride for Nico.  It probably wouldn’t be what one would expect.

***This, I think, is  how Nico can do what he does without so much as a magnifying glass—he knows  how things are supposed to be in Athens and deduces from the differences.  Which is why placing him in different place or culture really knocks him off-balance.

^And, as usual, his Author Notes are not to be missed.  They’re as interesting as the mystery—in a good way.

Random Thursday: Library Edition*

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funny pictures - You have some overdue library books

On the first of November, our library patrons will have the option of receiving automatic notices—about available reserves and overdue notices—via text instead of e-mail or phone.

Our e-mails go out at 6am, so the question was whether the issuing of text messages could be adjusted to a more reasonable time.

It can . . . which made me wonder about the possibilities—and the subjective definition of reasonable:

“This is the Public Library.  How may I help you?”

“You people texted me at two-thirty this morning!”

“I see.  May I have your library card number please?  Thank you.  Ah, yes, sir. You appear to have  several books that are months overdue.  I’m afraid we’ll be calling you bright and early each and every morning until they’re returned, or you pay to have them replaced.”

“You can’t do that!”

“It’s in the terms and conditions you signed when you registered for our texting notification service, sir, right under the warning that your carrier’s usual text fees will apply.”

“I never agreed to that!”

“You initialed both boxes, sir.”

“But . . . but this is harrassment!”

“You could always return the books, sir.”

“My taxes paid for those books—and they pay your salary, too!”

“I see.  Well, I suppose we could make an exception in your case.  How’s this—you return three of the five books and pay all of your fines, and we’ll move up your daily reminder to one am.  Agreed?”

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I love this bookcase . . . but where do you start shelving?

epic win photos - Moebius Books WIN

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Library Principles for Students, from the Old Testament
(adapted from Ian Frazier’s “Lamentations of the Father,” by librarian extraordinaire, Jim Farrington)

Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the Library.

Of the hoofed animals, broiled or ground into burgers, you may eat, but not in the Library.

Of the cloven-hoofed animal, plain or with cheese, you may eat, but not in the Library.

Of the cereal grains, of the corn and of the wheat and of the oats, and of all the cereals that are of bright color and unknown provenance you may eat, but not in the Library.

Of the round pies of baked dough, topped variously and wondrously with goodness of the Earth, especially with extra garlic and double cheese, you may eat, but not in the Library, neither may you carry such therein.

Of quiescently frozen dessert and of all frozen after-meal treats you may eat, but not in the Library.

Of the juices and other beverages, you may drink, but not in the Library, unless it is that drink of two parts hydrogen and one of oxygen and only then should the mixture be held in a container of the prescribed shape and nature that miraculously do not spill even when uprighted.

Indeed, when you reach the place where the Library carpet begins, of any food or beverage there you may not eat, neither may you drink.

Laws When at Table, in Carrel, or in Wingback

And if you are seated in your comfy chair, keep your legs and feet below you as they were. Neither raise up your knees, nor place your feet upon the table, for that is an abomination to me. Yes, even though this might be something you would do in confines of your own domicile, your feet upon the table are an abomination, and worthy of rebuke.

Draw not with your pens or pencils or other implements of writing upon the table or the books before you, even in pretend, for we do not do that; that is why. Yours shall not be the last eyes to gaze understandably upon the words so written, and they should be as fresh for your followers as for you and your antecedents.

On Vocal Discourse

Do not speak loudly with thy neighbor or study mate within the Library; for it is as if you scream all the time. If you find a troubling idea foisted upon your eyes between the bindings of a book, your voice rises up even to the ceiling, while you point to the offense with the finger of your right hand; but I say to you, scream not; only remonstrate gently with a knowing nod, that you may correct the fault of the author in your own essay.

Likewise, if you find your mind wandering from the soulfulness of your studies, again I say, refrain from conversing with whoever be at hand so that others might not be so distracted.

Play not the electronic gadgets fitted to your ears at such a volume as to cause others to march to your drum machine.

Though the need will eventually arise that you must give in to your ignorance of a matter bibliographic and throw yourself prostrate to the all-knowing ones behind the Great Oaken Desk in the Campbell Reference Center, wail not despairingly nor gnash the teeth loudly, for the sound carries great and far in that part of the Library, and then many of your peers will know of your misfortune; behold, I whisper myself, yet do not die.

Various Other Laws, Statutes, and Ordinances

Attempt not to repair broken word carriers with your own tape, for these are matters better left to our specialists.

Forget not that to steal is one of the original sins, and you will be punished woefully, if not now then in the fullness of time.

Although the Library’s computers are capable of seeing many wondrous sites in the World, look not upon the lascivious or unscholarly among them, nor print endless reams of things of which those who pay your bills would not approve.

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New technology has always required some adjustment . .  .

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* Downith started it by sending me this article—it’s not overly funny, but it is important!

Poetry Wednesday: Thomas Hood

“However critics may take offence,
A double meaning has double sense.”
—Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

William Michael Rossetti once wrote,* “There were scarcely any events in the life of Thomas Hood.”

I assume he means those great tragedies that are supposed to add depth and purpose to a writer’s art and make it far more interesting to, say, the critical biographer.

And unless you count Thomas Hood’s chronic illnesses and far too early death,** Mr. Rossetti is right. While Thomas Hood didn’t have the easiest life—better health and more money would have helped—he experienced no thunderbolts from above or catastrophes from below, which is better than a poet of his caliber might expect.

Or if he did, he kept ’em to himself, which is odd behavior for a humor writer of any time period.

But that’s exactly what interests me about Thomas Hood’s life—the lack of drama,  the quiet, everyday events that molded him into a poet who could hold forth on a variety of topics with authority, skill, wry wit, and wordplay.

Hear me out:

His father was a London bookseller.

Appreciation of the value of the written word? Check.

After his father’s death,*** he was fortunate enough to have a schoolmaster whose enthusiasm for teaching gave his students an interest in learning. With this teacher’s encouragement, Thomas Hood revised a novel— Paul and Virginia by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre— for which he was paid by the printers.

Early encouragement and a taste of success? Check.

Later, after falling ill—supposedly from the pressures of banking and engraving, though he was never strong—he went to recuperate with relatives in Dundee, Scotland, where he read anything he could find and started to write poetry in earnest.

Nothing helps writing like reading . . . and writing.

Around 1821, after his return to London, friends of his offered him the job of sub-editor for London Magazine, which brought him into the company of Charles Lamb, Henry Cary, John Clare, Allan Cunningham, Hartley Coleridge, and many other influential writers of the time.

Support group? Check!

And there you have it—though there’s also no denying the influence his children had on his choice of subject matter:^

Though he was well-known as a humorist who often wrote scathingly funny bits on current news,^^ Thomas Hood did write more serious poetry, and it’s a shame that the public didn’t bother to appreciate most of it at the time.

He wrote several poems on social wrongs—readers did pay attention to “Song of the Shirt” which condemned the  criminally unfair labor practices of London—but others are more traditional.

And some are so incredibly long, I had to scare up a Roman numeral chart to figure out what CCCXLVIII meant.^^^

Regardless, the man has a gorgeous way with words, as in the second verse of the beautiful ballad, “Sigh on, sad heart,” which touches, as one might expect, upon that perennial favorite, unrequited love—though it has a touch of socio-economic cynicism that is all the poet’s own:

I keep going back to those last four lines . . .

And I’m not ashamed to say that this one hits me square in the tear ducts:

To an Absentee
(Thomas Hood)

O’er hill, and dale, and distant sea,
Through all the miles that stretch between,
My thought must fly to rest on thee,
And would, though worlds should intervene.

Nay, thou art now so dear, methinks
The farther we are forced apart,
Affection’s firm elastic links
But bind the closer round the heart.

For now we sever each from each,
I learned what I have lost in thee;
Alas, that nothing else could teach
How great indeed my love should be!

Farewell! I did not know thy worth;
But thou art gone, and now ’tis prized:
So angels walk’d unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognized!

But mostly, Thomas Hood wrote poems so full of tongue-in-cheek switchback punning and word-juggling that I can’t help snickering—and groaning—even when the topic is pretty grim. In fact, the amount of clever funny seems to be in direct proportion to how pathetic he claims a ballad to be:

You’ll be delighted to know that he has dozens more of these.  No need to thank me.

Not all of them are perfect, not all of them are this exuberant with the portmanteaus, as Humpty Dumpty might say, but Thomas Hood is worth reading.  Go to it—and let me know your favorite!

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*He said this in his introduction to one of the many, many collections titled, appropriately enough, The Poetical Works of Thomas Hood. This one was published by George Routledge & Sons in 1874.  I’m not holding out on you guys—the library has a reprint.

**Which, admittedly, did have a certain negative impact on anything he was planning to write.

***Sounds like a tragedy to me . . .

^Try his ode to sleep deprivation, too—it’s the last of his Domestic Poems and it’s a hoot.

^^On an epidemic of grave robberies:

Don’t go to weep upon my grave,
And think that there I be.
They haven’t left an atom there
Of my anatomie.

^^^It means you don’t copy that poem in a blog post, is what it means.